Conservation

Halfway Through Trump’s Term, Key Public Lands Agencies Still Lack Leaders

Former officials say the agencies they once led are being hollowed out and weakened, leaving a vacuum of power for the president's interior secretary nominee David Bernhardt.

More than two years after his inauguration, President Donald Trump has yet to fill the top posts at a trio of federal agencies that together oversee more than 400 million acres of public land. Since Trump took office, interim appointees who have not been confirmed by the Senate have led the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. For all three, there aren’t even nominees currently up for consideration.

Those directorships are far from the department’s only unfilled seats; the Washington Post reported last month that only 41 percent of the Interior leadership positions that require Senate confirmation have been filled. Experts say one effect of those vacancies is to consolidate power in the hands of David Bernhardt, acting secretary of the Interior Department, which houses the three agencies. Bernhardt went before a Senate committee on Thursday for a confirmation hearing as Trump’s pick to replace Ryan Zinke, the scandal-plagued former secretary who resigned in December. If confirmed, he’ll run a sprawling department whose thin leadership ranks could give him unusual authority to make decisions about land and wildlife management.

Several former Interior officials tell Audubon that to go so long without a confirmed director at even one of these agencies—let alone all three—is unprecedented and worrisome. “Right now, three of the nation’s four premier land management agencies have no director sitting at the top. To me, that’s a crisis,” says Dan Ashe, who led the FWS from 2011 to 2017.

“It’s hard to understand, frankly,” says David Hayes, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations as deputy Interior secretary. “It suggests a lack of commitment to the mission. The reality is that having respected leaders that are answerable to the Congress and the White House is a key element to executing the important mission of these agencies. And leaving the job to unempowered caretakers is an affront to the important work that goes on in these bureaus.”

Critics say the numerous vacancies at Interior serve to clear the way for Bernhardt—a former energy industry lobbyist whose past clients create so many conflicts of interest that he reportedly carries around a small card listing them all—to enact the administration's fossil fuel-focused agenda for public lands“It means at these agencies there’s nobody with Senate-confirmed authority to set the agenda or advocate for employees or stand up to political pressure," says Kate Kelly, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress. The effect, she says, is to make Bernhardt something like a "czar" for federal land management.

Some observers see the vacancies not as an accident or oversight, but as a considered tactic by the administration. The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, issued a report earlier this month charging that Trump and Bernhardt have circumvented the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which limits how long officials can serve in an acting capacity, usually capping it at 210 days. Interior has allowed the interim directors at BLM, FWS, and NPS, along with five other senior leaders, to overstay their authority under that law, PEER asserts, by simply leaving “acting” out of their job titles. 

Bernhardt, and Zinke before him, have kept those unconfirmed officials in place—and skirted the Senate confirmation process—through a series of secretarial orders delegating authority to them. Those orders specify, however, that the officials cannot perform duties that laws only allow Senate-confirmed leaders to undertake. And that means Bernhardt is the only person in Interior with the authority to take those actions, says Peter Jenkins, senior counsel at PEER. “What Bernhardt has done is centralize all the decision-making power in himself,” Jenkins says. “Is it intentional? Yeah, I’d say it’s intentional.”

Asked why the three agencies have remained so long without confirmed directors, Alex Hinson, deputy press secretary for Interior, said that Trump nominated 13 people for positions in the department during the previous Congress, 8 of whom were confirmed. “The Department aspires to have all nominees confirmed and allowed to perform the important functions assigned to these roles by law,” Hinson said in an email.

Aside from questions of legality, former Interior officials say the long-running vacancies sap employee morale and diminish the ability of the agencies to fulfill their missions, which include managing the country’s treasured landscapes and most important habitat for birds and other wildlife.

“These are incredibly important issues, and they’re really tightly connected to the way a lot of people live,” says Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president for conservation policy at the National Audubon Society and a former adviser to two Obama-era Interior secretaries. “It’s really important to have experienced, capable people working in those jobs. If there’s no leadership and no structure and little certainty, that makes it hard for capable people to stay. That’s bad for everyone who cares about what the Interior Department does.”

At the moment, the BLM—which administers energy development, grazing, timber, recreation and other activities on more than one-tenth of the nation’s land, mostly in the West—is run by Brian Steed, its deputy director for policy and programs. Trump has not nominated a director for the bureau. Margaret Everson, principal deputy director at the FWS, now helms that agency, which oversees national wildlife refuges, endangered species issues, migratory bird conservation, and more. Trump nominated Aurelia Skipwith, a former executive at the pesticide and agriculture giant Monsanto and current deputy assistant secretary in Interior, to lead the FWS. But he also waited until last October to do so, 640 days after taking office. The Senate did not confirm her, and there has been no active nominee in the new Congress. Deputy director Dan Smith is in charge at the NPS. Last August, 588 days into his presidency, Trump nominated David Vela as parks director, but the Senate did not confirm him and there is no current nominee. 

Former Interior top brass who spoke with Audubon didn’t question those officials’ abilities or experience, but they say that federal agencies suffer regardless. Confirmed directors can provide a clear strategic direction in a way that interim leaders can’t, says Jonathan Jarvis, who was National Park Service director from 2009 to 2017. They can also “push back on stupid ideas,” he says. As an example, Jarvis points to Interior’s retreat last April when faced with stiff resistance over what he calls Zinke’s “idiotic” plan to sharply increase entrance fees for some popular national parks. “They just rolled out this boneheaded idea that went down in flames almost immediately,” he says. “A director would have stopped that in its tracks.”

Public lands advocates and others who oppose Bernhardt as secretary have urged senators to reject his nomination. Still, with a Republican majority in the Senate and strong support from its Energy and Natural Resources committee chairman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bernhardt could soon be confirmed for the job.

As for filling other key posts at Interior, Hayes, the former deputy secretary, says he isn’t holding his breath. “We’re now more than two years in,” he says. “To not even have folks nominated suggests it’s going to be a long wait. It could be the entire first term goes by without leaders in these critically important bureaus.”

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